Are the Diamondbacks suffering from Reno failure?

Earlier in the season, there was a spell when it seemed the Arizona had decided to forget all about their new Triple-A affiliate in Reno, preferring to pull up players such as Gerardo Parra and Bryan Augenstein from Double-A Mobile instead. This felt odd, since the raw stats coming up from the Aces hitters were awesome - they had no less than nine players with an .860 OPS or greater this year, in 150+ PAs. To put that into context, only the Rockies and Phillies have more than three such hitters in the NL; the former lead the league, with five.

When we finally saw some of the Aces arriving in the majors later in the year, it seems that we found out the reason why, as with only short-term exceptions, they failed to produce at anything close to the level we expected, even given the jump in pitching faced. What's going on? Do our minor-leaguers all suck? Or is Reno also home to the Biggest Little Ballpark in the World? After the jump, we'll take a look...

The first thing to point out is something obvious: you should expect batters to struggle their first time up in the big show. There are 19 position players in the National League this season who made the major-league debut, and have 50+ PAs; the median line they've produced so far is .243/.305/.411, with an OPS+ down at 82. Our three qualifiers - Parra, Trent Oeltjen and Brandon Allen are dead in the middle of the sample, occupying slots #9-11, with numbers of 88, 82 and 80 respectively [Josh Whitesell got a cup of coffee last year, so isn't in this group, but his career number of 73 would put him =12th]

So it doesn't seem our players are doing worse than normal. But have they dropped off more from their minor-league numbers than most? To find that out, here is a table showing the OPS for the nineteen qualifying players this season, in both the majors and minors, and the difference between them. In two cases, they basically bypassed Triple-A, so I've shown the grade at which they played; in the case of Cabrera, he had only 50 AB in the minors before promotion, so I've gone with his 2008 number, marked with a *. Everyone else had at least 100 MiLB to work with.

Name Maj. OPS Min. OPS Difference
Kyle Blanks .869 .878 .009
Andrew McCutchen .825 .853 .028
Chris Coghlan .824 .970 .146
Drew Stubbs .783 .713 +.070
Bobby Scales .757 .761 .004
Gerardo Parra .739 .960(AA) .221
Everth Cabrera .732 .760*(A) .028
Trent Oeltjen .728 .862 .134
Colby Rasmus .724 .742 .018
Brandon Allen .715 .944 .229
Jason Jaramillo .703 .710 .007
John Mayberry .685 .788 .103
Jordan Schafer .600 .663 .063
Tyler Greene .585 .851 .266
Drew Sutton .548 .835 .287
Fernando Martinez .517 .877 .360
Matt Downs .514 .834 .320
Craig Tatum .498 .638 .140
Diory Hernandez .410 .821 .411

Small sample-size warnings obviously apply to a lot of the numbers here. Diory Hernandez will not be in the majors for long if he continues to produce a line of .141/.198/.212, and nor do I expect Drew Stubbs to keep producing 70 points higher than he did in the minors. Overall, however, and discounting the two players whose numbers were below Triple-A, the overall drop-off is 144 points. The three Arizona players average 195 points; a little higher, but one of the them did jump from Double-A. If we also want to lob Josh Whitesell in, the gap there is 204 [career OPS = .665, Reno 2009 OPS = .869], so still in the same ballpark.

Speaking of which... Let's take a look at our three Aces - Oeltjen, Whitesell and Allen - see how their numbers for Reno stack up, when you split them apart by performances at home and on the road:
   Trent Oeltjen: Reno OPS .952, Road OPS .763 - Difference 189 points
   Josh Whitesell: Reno OPS .976, Road OPS .695 - Difference 291 points
   Brandon Allen: Reno OPS .930, Road OPS .794 - Difference .236 points
Again, for context, the average difference in home and road OPS for the National League this season is only 36 points, showing what a hitter-friendly park Reno is, in part due to its altitude of 4,500 feet, about four times the height of Phoenix. Based on these three, the next time a player comes up down from Reno, we should take about 50 points off his road OPS, and that'll give us a better idea of what to expect. [It would be interesting to take a look and see what happens when players go from Colorado Springs, the Rockies' Triple-A affiliate, to Coors. Colorado Springs beats even Reno, being at about 6,200 feet above sea-level.]

However, the whole area of projecting major-league statistics based on minor-league ones has been gone into in some depth - it's called minor-league equivalencies (MLEs), and their calculation was pioneered by Bill James in his 1985 Baseball Abstract. If you want more detail - and trust me, when I say you probably don't - you can find the specifics here. It doesn't really "predict", in the sense that the numbers tells you what a minor-league player would have done had he played in the big leagues, not what he will do at the big-league level. But it still gives you an idea, and the predictive value is about as good. It's players such as Whitesell, who play in Triple-A and the majors in the same year, who are the foundation for the number crunching.

There's a calculator for MLE's as part of MinorLeagueSplits.com. It's not perfect, not least because it still lists Tucson as a park, rather than Reno - I imagine "official" park factors for Reno are still being worked out, with it being such a new stadium. I opted to plug in Colorado Springs instead, due to the height factor, and as a result, the numbers below should not be taken as gospel:
   Trent Oeltjen: .260/.297/.408 - actual .250/.257/.471
   Josh Whitesell: .245/.331/.377 - actual .194/.346/.287
   Gerardo Parra: .301/.389/.397 - actual .292/.328/.411
   Brandon Allen: .274/.340/.509 - actual .204/.271/.444
Oeltjen's numbers are fairly close to what was expected; Whitesell's OBP is near to the mark too, albeit thanks mostly to many more walks and fewer hits; Parra is a good match except for walks; Allen's hits haven't been up to par, and that probably explains why all his numbers are lower than projected. His is the smallest sample size, less than 60 PAs in the majors, and his BABIP of .267 isn't helping (NL average = .298). Oh, and if you moved Parra to Reno, his AA numbers equate to .362/.469/.493 there.

All told, the performance of our AAA call-ups is really not too far off what we should probably have expected. None of them were can't-miss prospects like Justin Upton, and early struggles are only to be expected. I am more optimistic about Allen, due to his youth. Oeltjen and Whitesell are both almost in their peak years, so if they prove unable to stick in the major-leagues now, the sad truth is, they probably won't be able to.

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